Here's what most publications will say about J.K. Rowling's first book for adults: it's not for children. It contains swearwords, rape, racism, pornography, self-harm, suicide, domestic violence, heroin and marijuana use, a character who contemplates child abuse, and graphic descriptions of sex.
But none of it is gratuitous. Focusing on these elements makes this mostly tame book sound on a par with "Trainspotting" or "A Clockwork Orange." It's not.
Instead, "The Casual Vacancy" is a generally well-written book whose central theme is responsibility for those less fortunate, all the time imbued with ever-present British themes of class and notions of propriety.
English small-town life is quite literally parochial. As a great deal of British literature has it, from Austen to McEwan, it is filled with a thousand petty grudges and secret desires that occupy the minds of the mostly bored. And boredom plus resentment equals drama.
In "The Casual Vacancy," the fictional town of Pagford's daily life is shaken at the start of the book with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a local council member, coach of the local girls' rowing team and a supporter of local and civic responsibility on behalf of the residents of The Fields, the local housing project where Fairbrother grew up.
His death provides his enemies on the council, headed by local deli owner Howard Mollison, an opportunity to elect a friendly replacement whose arrival would break the council's voting deadlock, and allow them to push The Fields out of Pagford through careful redistricting. This, along with closing the local methadone clinic, would in their eyes help restore Pagford to an idyllic, middle-class, poverty-free existence.
However, Mollison and his obnoxious family had not counted on the combined forces of social worker Kay, doctor Parminder and the children of the various, mostly unpleasant adults in the story, whose own motivations serve to undermine the best-laid plans of Muggles and men.
It certainly comes as no surprise that Rowling knows how to write a twisty, involving plot, and the "vacancy" caused by the death of Barry Fairbrother is little more than the motivating factor for the numerous actions that follow. Just as the Sorcerer's Stone and Goblet of Fire aren't central to Harry Potter's overarching narrative, so the election itself becomes little more than an excuse for dramatic intent.
The opening aside, the plot is focused very much on individual characters and their interactions, rather than external events, and Rowling certainly pulls no punches in her descriptions. The adult characters are mostly nasty people who are motivated by self interest and petty victories. The male adult characters in particular are, with few exceptions, often-violent misogynists, while the women are mostly weak and self-loathing (though at least a few of them are also well intentioned.)
Likeable or not, these adult characters seem to be incredibly clear and self aware about all of their dramatic motivations. Indeed, the clarity of the authorial third person is one of the book's fundamental weaknesses, revealing a level of calculation behind every decision that seems barely credible, and without the ambiguities that could make the characters and their decisions believable.
However, the real stars of this book are the teenagers, whose lives are lived in parallel to those of their parents. Their actions feel more believable and instinctive, their motivations more confused and equivocal. These characters attract and repulse the reader in turn, driven by pubescent levels of shame, anger, hormones and possibility. Only when their actions are pushed directly into influencing the rest of the plot do they occasionally stretch credibility.
Among their number are Stuart Wall, known as "Fats," a mini Holden Caulfield who feels invulnerable and is constantly looking for authenticity; Andrew Price, infatuated with the new girl and constantly in the shadow of best friend Fats; Sukhvinder, overweight and bullied by Fats; and Krystal Weedon, a girl from the projects whose father is absent, possibly dead, and whose mother is a barely eloquent drug addict and occasional prostitute.
Krystal represents the heart of the book and its message. Will she be saved from her mother's fate or worse? Can she escape into a middle-class existence? How much does her future depend on the decisions of others, who declaim "personal responsibility" while showing little of their own, and are quick to dismiss her as a lost cause and a stereotype? What happens to Krystal and a thousand others like her if we turn our backs and, as is literally played out in a climactic scene, are so caught up in our own petty considerations that we don't notice when someone is crying out for help?
At a time of austerity and cuts to public services in the UK, "The Casual Vacancy" contains a strong political narrative that, if it weren't for the author's fame, would probably receive little coverage. Whether it will make any difference remains an open question; others have already detected Harry Potter's influence on young people's political views. For Rowling, the president of a charity that helps single parent families, this book is more complex and engaging than a mere slogan, but it also feels written with political intent.
Rowling is clearly a skilled writer. This book is more depressing than her previous work because it is set in a world without magic, where cruelty is less apocalyptic and more believably petty. Though some sequences feel a few drafts short of being ready, others are written with a fluency and beauty that suggest that there could be more and better works to come from her pen.
Would this book be published if it weren't for the name on the cover? Almost certainly. Would anyone pay much attention to it, and its message? Probably not. Is it worth reading? Yes, because it's become a talking point among readers, and unlike "Fifty Shades of Grey," reading it is not a painful experience. Is it worthy of awards? Probably not, but I'd definitely be interested in reading her next book, regardless of the baggage carried by the name on the cover.
In summary, "The Casual Vacancy" is a good, though not great, book about small-town, small-minded England. What else did you expect?